So you are an Associate Consultant and want to be a Partner?

Most consulting organizations use a pyramid organization structure. Lots of consultants, fewer Principals and very few Partners and even fewer Managing Partners.


With a few exceptions, people tend to make Partner because they have earned it and proven their abilities.  Unless you are in a massive consulting organization, most Partner roles will require:

  • excellence in skills in their area of knowledge
  • business acumen
  • business development acumen
  • the ability to drive a profitable business
  • excellent client relationship knowledge
  • notable and acknowledged leadership qualities and
  • rapport with the other Partners
  • a portfolio of client relationships that represent incremental value to the partnership

not just technical knowledge. Whether you are a lawyer, an accountant or an IT consultant, the path the Partnership is quite similar. You are expected to have as an associate consultant:

  • high billability
  • excellent customer satisfaction
  • excellent work and deliverables
  • flexibility (the ability for the firm to use your skills for the highest leverage work, when they need it, where they need it)
  • positive attitude to the client and to the firm
  • visibility to the Partner and other management
  • good profitability (ie. what you are billed out as versus what you are paid)

When you look at the attrition rate of most large scale IT consulting firms there are two points in the pyramid with very high attrition:

  • Associate Consultant turn-over tends to be very high and the demands placed on the individual in terms of time, work-life balance and expectations of excellence can conflict with personal life goals and choices. ie. If you think you can join a firm as an associate consultant, work for 5 years, not put in overtime and become a Partner, you have an excellent imagination but no hope of Partnership.
  • Associate Partner attrition is the other place in the pyramid where despite  years of ambition and excellence  they are challenged yet again to prove that they have the remaining qualities of a Partner, generally focused around the ability to bring in new business or extend existing business opportunities. Most people in this role fail to achieve the end-goal and leave for management roles elsewhere.

Do you want to be a Partner?

A Partner in a large firm can make excellent money.  Let’s do the math.  Assume your partnership agreement allows you 20% of the Gross Margin for your practice and 80% comes to the firm both to pay the non-labor bills. If you sell a $100M project it may execute over 4 years with the following annual profile.

  Cost Utilization Hr Bill rate 1 YR Bill All Bill All Cost Margin
1 Partner $700,000 20% $500 $200,000 $200,000 $700,000 ($500,000)
1 Associate Partners $200,000 20% $350 $140,000 $140,000 $200,000 ($60,000)
2 Senior Managers $175,000 40% $300 $240,000 $480,000 $350,000 $130,000
3 Managing Consultants $150,000 60% $300 $360,000 $1,080,000 $450,000 $630,000
5 Senior consultants $125,000 70% $275 $385,000 $1,925,000 $625,000 $1,300,000
12 consultants $100,000 70% $225 $315,000 $3,780,000 $1,200,000 $2,580,000
50 associate consultants $75,000 80% $200 $320,000 $16,000,000 $3,750,000 $12,250,000
Total $16,330,000
Firm $13,064,000
Partner $3,266,000
15% of Base Team Bonus Pool $1,091,250
Team Development $ 148,000
  Partner Take Home $2,726,750


You also have to remember that if you don’t have that project, the cost of warming the bench comes out of the Partner’s pocket also.

5 months without a project the Partner take-home amount goes to Zero.

As long at the practice is rocking, yes there is very good money in being a Partner.

How long will it take?

There are no hard and fast rules but I think you could assume the following as a minimum.

    • Associate to Consultant –  18 month to 2 years given excellent on-project work                             
    • Consultant to Senior – 1 Major project 1-2  years where the consultant has distinguished themselves.
    • Senior to Managing – 2  major projects where the Senior has been in progressively Senior roles
    • Managing to Senior Manager – 4-6 Major Projects
    • Associate Partner – 4-6 major but has done successful business development with a win track record
    • Associate Partner to Partner – 2-3 years to demonstrate keen and sustained  business development and client management expertise, at least 1 major “additional growth”  win (ie if you are not growing… you don’t need another partner)
    • Total estimated time – 10 years.

How to be a Partner

The first thing to remember is that as an Associate Consultant you are unique and special, just like everybody else. So you do need to differentiate yourself.  Technical excellence is expected of you in your role, so becoming acknowledged for it is the differentiating factor.

  • Be active in your technical community internally and externally
  • Get published (few things make an easier sale to a client than putting a copy of your book or technical journal article on their desk)
  • Make certain you understand the industry trends in your area and are briefed on all common and niche technologies in your area

Hey, but I am a world-class BizTalk developer, why should I need to know about TIBCO?

My answer is you don’t, as long as you would like to remain a world-class BizTalk developer and don’t want to go further. You are more valuable to your client when you are expert in your technical domain as well as a technical skill area. You are more valuable to your practice when you can provide informed advice to the client that will guide them to investing more deeply and confidently with your practice.

Make investments in your future…

Some projects are technically appealing, they use state-of-the-art tools and may in fact have other colleagues you have worked with before. It will be familiar, fun and perhaps even a “sure-thing” for delivery and customer satisfaction. Perfect right?

Likely not for the partner track.  In order to make it to the top, there are many other skill areas you will need to develop:

  • business acumen
  • business development acumen
  • the ability to drive a profitable business
  • excellent client relationship knowledge
  • leadership qualities and
  • rapport

    To develop, by definition, you must put yourself in new domains, new project areas, new roles with new challenges. You develop business acumen by being in different domains and being exposed to what each customer values. Do you understand supply chain, process manufacturing, discrete manufacturing, retail, distribution, financial services, capital markets,  transportation, public sector, healthcare etc? I am not suggesting that as a Partner you will have this breadth of expertise, it is likely you will focus, but as a associate consultant/consultant broadly educating yourself is of value. Now did I just give the opposite advice I gave in my blog Being in Demand… How to make it happen ? Yes I did.  That blog references how to maximize your value as a consultant, ensure you are in demand and ensure you command the highest rate.  This is completely different. This is about making investments in your career to develop into the person that could be a Partner.

    • You must look for and accept roles in projects that put you in progressively more client-facing activities and progressively senior levels of client interaction.
    • You must look for and accept roles in projects that allow you to learn about team leadership, refine your skill and become excellent at it.
    • Take every opportunity to advance your client management, consulting and leadership skills.
    • Maintain constant vigilance on your value to the client and to your practice. If you ever find yourself in a low-value role either convert it to a high-value role or get out of it immediately.

    Making Principal/Partner

    I spent a decade+ of my career with Unisys, a major Global Systems Integrator. With leadership from McKinsey, Anderson/Accenture and Deloitte they fashioned the $2B consulting services organization into a Partner-led practice model over the years. Larry Weinbach, the CEO at the time,  was previously Managing Partner-Chief Executive of Andersen Worldwide, so you can determine from that, the organization style that was advocated. In the early part of of Larry’s tenure as CEO, Unisys had one of the top-performing stocks in the S&P index and consulting services was its fastest growing and most profitable business by far. A later CxO senior management team, by doing everything opposite to what I have proposed in my entire blog, then decimated the business. But that’s another story…

    (not that I’m bitter at all.. having thousands of $30-$40 stock options that after a 10:1 reverse split recently now have an effective value of $400 against a current trade value of $37 aka completely valueless)

    When I joined Unisys it was in a hard-core technology capacity as a software development consultant. In the early years I participated or led teams that implemented a number of leading-edge solutions including national pharmacy claims. national retail solutions and others. Some of these solutions made the trade publications

    (CIO magazine) cio-obc

    and most of all they were delivered on-time, on-budget with very satisfied clients. I also co-led the consulting excellence initiatives for the subsidiary. My performance on these projects led to my nomination for numerous “Club” and “Eagle” awards, which entitled you to go sit on a tropical beach somewhere, play some golf and have a drink with the corporate executives. The most important of which was the time with the executives to make your work and yourself known. My work expanded outside Canada in year 3 to propose a project for a state agency. It was accepted, the project went well and I received an offer to work with another group within Unisys, the Health Information Management group. I was assigned to the architect role and was leveraged on many initiatives throughout the US, with larger and more responsible positions. I invested a great deal of personal time in developing industry and technical knowledge in the Healthcare space including new technologies and specialty technologies. Within a couple of years, the work got noticed by Corporate and I was asked to join Worldwide Operations as the   “fly-and-fix” architect. This role was singularly the most important role of my career. Not only did it provide a global perspective, with projects throughout the world, but it placed me in high-pressure, high-profile situations where my work and counsel was directly consumed by the executive teams on both sides of the table. It also forced me to do develop expertise in financial services, capital markets and a number of specialty areas and  technologies plus legal and contracts. With this 80 hour per week job, I can safely say that every other waking moment was spent on study. By the time I landed in whatever city on the globe that required my attention, I knew the client, I knew their business goals, I knew the technology, I knew the client system , key players and roles, I knew the our team members and roles, I knew the symptoms of the problems they were facing and I had a plan.  This role put me in the boardrooms of major corporations and institutions worldwide and allowed me to learn first-hand the “big project” skill sets. Big meaning … $300-$800 Million projects. By this time I was bearing the title Principal Architect. I was in the Worldwide Operations Group when Unisys took on a joint project with Tandem to create a non-stop Windows NT based solution for NASDAQ. From the this initiative, Unisys formed the Worldwide Enterprise NT Services Organization focused around bringing Mainframe class applications to the Microsoft Windows platform on Unisys CMP (Cellular Multi Processor) hardware. From this the project the team took on another challenge, the wholesale replacement of legacy mainframe systems at one of the largest US banks. A few months into the initiative, I was called in to review and assist this project get some forward traction. I worked with the team, reset the architecture and the plan and due to my experience doing this on a global basis was selected to present the “reset” to the CIO and steering committee. They agreed to the reset but with 1 condition, I was to be the new project lead. My days of globetrotting were over. This was nearly a 4 year commitment that allowed me to hire over 500 people, manage daily 250 of my team and co-lead another 200+ of the client’s. The project was the highest performing project in the company’s portfolio. That and an ability to sustain growth, high team morale and excellent customer satisfaction led to my Managing Principal board review and subsequent promotion to Principal.

  • Now everyone’s journey will be different, but  I can offer the following advice based on my experience:

    • the Partner track is a different road than technical consulting excellence
    • Money matters – you have to prove that you can drive growth and sustain profit
    • Relationships matter – you must create, foster and grow deep, trusted relationships with both Senior and Operational management within your client organizations – Remembering that the Operational manager of today may just be your CIO client in a few years.
    • Your track record is critical
    • You can learn something from every CxO you meet, plan to meet lots of them
    • Be sure that being a Partner is what you really want before going down that road
    • Above all,  maintain your personal integrity, solid client relationships will sustain beyond the label of the firm you work for as long as you do. It is ultimately much more important than your run for partnership. You need not look further than the recent Toronto newspapers for examples of what happens when you don’t or events like the spectacular implosion of firms like Anderson. Integrity in the Deal

    When I left Unisys I asked my most recent client, the CIO for a reference… It has meant much more to me than my old business card.

    “…He brought tremendous knowledge to the project related to software integration, new technologies to enhance performance and project management skills that are absolutely essential to a project of the magnitude of our endeavor. …It is with utmost confidence that I can recommend Mr. Hunter as a highly competent, knowledgeable IT professional. His matter of fact, low key style coupled with a strong work ethic and character of the highest integrity makes him an asset to any organization that can capitalize on his skills”

    So if you are headed for Partner… I wish you success! If you are not…. then this blog site is really for you.

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    1 Response to So you are an Associate Consultant and want to be a Partner?

    1. Pingback: Infinite Shades of Grey – A year later and a little greyer | Infinite Shades of Grey

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